(assuming you're staying in south west Cowal)
A fine day’s cycling (or walking, though on the road) is to be enjoyed, through some great country and taking in some interesting sights, in the southern part of Cowal. It’s all pretty level ground – no climbing required.
Start at Kilmodan Church (‘the church of St Modan’) in the Clachan of Glendaruel. Have a look at the church and the graveyard. In the corner of the graveyard is a lapidarium, a building in which a fine collection of medieval carved stone has been placed by Historic Scotland for their protection. They are centuries older than the modern church building, silently witnessing to the faith of a medieval community here and to their hope that the loved ones they lost were embraced by God’s mercy.
From here you can go onto the main road (A886) and turn right, going south. You pass the farm of Lephinkill whose name (Gaelic lethpheighinn cille ‘halfpenny land of the church’) indicates that it once belonged to the church, probably generating income and resources for the church and its priest. The term lethpheighinn ‘halfpenny’, or ‘halfpenny land’, is a very ancient form of land-valuation. It may date back to the tenth or eleventh century, which therefore points to an earlier horizon for the church of Kilmodan than any of the stones in its lapidarium.
A few hundred yards further on, a road to the right would take you over a fine stone bridge and (if you fancied a vigorous climb) up a road that goes high into the hills and drops down on the west side to Otter Ferry.
The road over the top as it now appears was built in the 1960s, but this has been a mountain pass for much longer than that. The name of the farm Bealachandrain just above you is Gaelic bealach an droighne ‘pass of the blackthorn’ (or perhaps ‘of the bramble’), which clearly shows that this was an old routeway before the road was built.
Avoiding the long climb, stay on this road, going south past the remains of the sixteenth-century Campbell power-centre, Auchenbreck Castle (on your left at NS019814). If you were paying close attention to the church at Kilmodan, you might have noticed an old carved stone set on the south face of the building. It had the initials SDC and the date 1610 on it. The initials stand for ‘Sir Duncan Campbell’, who was lord of Auchenbreck at that time.
For much of the next few miles we will be travelling down the east shore of Loch Riddon. Continue from Auchenbreck going south. Just after Springfield take the right fork, keeping close to the shore. On the right you will see Eilean Dearg (‘red island’) about 150m off-shore. It is the site of an Iron Age fort, and there was a chapel on it by the twelfth century. Later, in the fourteenth century, a fortified residence was built there. It was destroyed in 1685 during the Argyll Rebellion – blown into a pile of rubble by government forces.
Half a mile further down this tiny loch-side road you will come to Fearnoch farm. Up there is an early chapel site, and a well called Tobar a’ Bhaistidh ‘baptism well’. You might enjoy a quick trip up there, if you have the time. You can leave your bike at the roadside, and be up there on foot in fifteen minutes. Try following the first stage of our Fearnoch to Kilfinan pilgrim route in reverse if you’re game.
Continuing from here you will pass Cnoc Dubh (‘black hillock’) and Caol Ruadh (‘red place of the narrows’ – the narrows being the distance between here and Bute, presumably). Caol Ruadh was once a children’s home, but now houses a sculpture park, where many modern artists show and sell their work. It’s well worth a visit if you’re visiting Cowal between May and September (although it’s only open biennially).
Rejoining the A-road, you pass Dundarrach, dún daraich ‘oak-tree fort’, though I know of no surviving evidence of a fort here.
At last you come to Colintraive, Gaelic caol an t-snàim ‘the narrows of the swimming’, where cattle were once swum over from the Isle of Bute on their way to market, driven by drovers along the ancient network of Scottish drove-roads. Now, of course, there’s a ferry to make the crossing, so you can cross to Bute on foot or in your car. Interestingly, a farmer on Bute tells of a time he bought some cattle in Cowal a few years ago, and took them on the ferry back to his farm on the island. On their first night on Bute they heard their former herd lowing on the far side of the caol or narrows, and swam back across to find them!
There’s much to do and see at Colintraive. Apart from the Caol Ruadh sculpture park, there is the ferry-crossing to Bute. The Colintraive Hotel is a good place to stop for lunch with a restaurant and a gastro-pub. You might even want to spend a night or two here and continue your walk later. Behind the Village Hall is a Community Garden, and nearby is the Colintraive Heritage Centre where you can learn in detail about the way of life and the culture of earlier generations of Cowal folk.
If you want to continue another 7km, you can keep going south, through some fine oakwoods (and then Milton Wood whose 40-acre garden planted with exotic species is open to visitors). A little further on you should find Colintraive Parish Church open. Why not pop in and take a look? It was built in the 1830s, when this area was part of the parish of Inverchaolain, and getting to church required a long walk followed by a boat trip across Loch Striven. This newer church must have been a relief to the parishioners!
Continue along the road between woodland and shore. Above you on the left you will see South Hall, once a grand mansion. Near the end of the promontory you will come to the remains of the township of Glaic. A dreadful battle occurred here in 1649. Lamonts came with weapons from the east, and began raiding the lands of Glaic whose people called for help from Duncan Campbell (who was in his castle on Eilean Dearg). When the Campbells arrived they fired on the Lamonts who fled to their boats. Some fell to Campbell bullets, others drowned trying to swim after their comrades who were escaping in boats, and others were captured and hanged by Campbell. So ended one sad episode in a long history of enmity and feud in Argyll.
From Glaic continue to Strone (Gaelic sròn ‘nose’, and hence ‘point, tip, promontory’). Enjoy the view here across the waters of the Clyde, the Kyles of Bute, Loch Striven – and if you still have some energy left continue to Coustonn, which is the end of the road.
If you plan to spend time in this area, then please have a look at the website of the local community organisation, Colintraive and Glendaruel Development Trust. It will give you a good idea of the energy, aspirations and values, of this community where exciting things are happening. Have a look, also, at the website of the Kilmodan and Colintraive churches.
(We are most grateful to Iain Connon of Colintraive for his suggestion of this route and his comments and descriptions.)